A mere two years after the world celebrated the 450th anniversary of the birth of its greatest playwright, William Shakespeare, we now have the 400th anniversary of his death (as befits a deft conjurer of plots, he is said to have been born and died on the same date, April 23). There will be festivals, exhibitions, walking tours, concerts, performances and films galore. The Folger Shakespeare Library is sending the 1623 First Folio on a swing through all 50 states. Chicago is marking the anniversary with a yearlong celebration that includes a concert of the Q Brothers in “Othello: The Remix” and a culinary “Complete Works” (for “Macbeth,” one chef is creating a bubbling concoction in the form of French fries and ice cream as an homage to the most famous of Shakespeare’s witches). New Orleans will mark Shakespeare’s passing with a traditional jazz funeral. And two English professors have joined forces to create a cocktail recipe book entitled Shakespeare, Not Stirred (anyone for a “Kate’s Shrew-driver”?). In 2016, the cup of bardolatry runneth over.
Indeed, one might quote the Bard himself in observing that “nothing in his life/ Became him like the leaving it.” In a paradox that he would no doubt have relished, Shakespeare has never been more alive than in the extravagant celebration of his death. As an unapologetic Will-worshiper for many years, I believe that Shakespeare’s plays continue to command our attention and affection for three principal reasons.
1. Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise: the word. Shakespeare’s plays display an endless, joyful reveling in words. He deploys language first for the practical purposes of an Elizabethan playwright—that is, to signify setting and to paint scenery, as in this famous description of dawn from “Romeo and Juliet”:
Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
He makes use of every rhetorical device at hand, from repetition and hyperbole to allegory and alliteration. There are the glorious set pieces, like John of Gaunt’s paean to England (in “Richard II”) as:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars.
This other Eden, demi-paradise.
Then there are the rhetorical pyrotechnics, like the sharp-edged repartee between the villainous Duke of Gloucester (soon to be King Richard III) and Lady Anne, whom he is wooing:
ANNE: I would I knew thy heart.
RICHARD: ’Tis figured in my tongue.
ANNE: I fear me both are false.
RICHARD: Then never man was true.
ANNE: Well, well, put up your sword.
RICHARD: Say then my peace is made.
We wonder, centuries on, at Shakespeare’s ability to harness the power of thought and feeling to the yoke of iambic pentameter, and we wonder, too, at the adroitness with which he switches to the earthy comic prose of Juliet’s nurse, Bottom the weaver and the porter in “Macbeth.”
2. Such stuff as dreams are made on: the flesh. In 37 plays, hundreds of characters are given life by one playwright with a generous, even boundless understanding of human nature. Bodied forth in such personalities as Hamlet and Rosalind, Cleopatra and Iago, Mercutio and Shylock, Shakespeare’s characters are never stock types representing a particular vice or virtue. They are recognizably human, enmeshed in the inchoate matrix of human relationship. They contradict themselves and one another, they misunderstand, mistrust and misspeak, they show patience and fortitude. They hope and despair, they loathe and love. They are, of course, like us.
And even though Shakespeare created these characters within the relatively circumscribed framework of the Elizabethan theater, creating roles for specific male players in his small acting company (women were not legally allowed on the English stage until the late 17th century), his dramatis personae utterly transcend the specifics of time and place.
We recognize in some of today’s hypocritical public officials the furtive lasciviousness of Angelo in Measure for Measure. We watch a wild teenager grow up to become a pillar of the community, just as Prince Hal leaves behind his dissolute life with Falstaff. And we know from our daily lives how important a small act of kindness can be, like the unnamed Servant Three of “King Lear,” who responds to the brutal blinding of Gloucester by fetching some flax and whites of eggs to salve Gloucester’s wounds.
3. The Play’s the Thing: The Stage. Joe Papp, an American theatrical producer and director with whom I worked in the late 1980s, loved to say that Shakespeare truly lives on the stage, not the page. He was right: it is the incarnational aspect of the theater that keeps Shakespeare alive, the theatrical interplay between word and flesh, language and character. The words of any play exist in parallel universes.
The two-dimensional plane of print is where most of us start. Through the careful reading of a scholarly edition of “The Tempest,” say, annotated by academics, laden with definitions and scholarly interpretation, we may appreciate the historical and literary context, Shakespeare’s linguistic skill, the arc of narrative and thematic development. But a stage performance transports us into the three-dimensional world of the live theater, thrillingly variable according to the director’s vision, the actor’s choices and the unpredictable dynamic between cast and audience on any given night.
It is one thing to scour the text of “The Winter’s Tale” for clues to the mystery of Leontes’s seemingly sudden and irrational suspicion of his wife. It is quite another to see, in real time, that mystery portrayed onstage, amid a plethora of nonverbal cues—the raised eyebrow, the quick touch on the hand, the innuendo—that tip the king over the edge. On the stage, the nuances and complexities of human life are capable of innumerable interpretations, and part of Shakespeare’s genius is that he imbues each of his plays with a suppleness and range that allow for endless interpretation.
In a memorial tribute to his famous contemporary, Ben Jonson observed of Shakespeare, “Thou are a monument without a tomb,/ And art alive still while thy book doth live/ And we have wits to read and praise to give.” Four centuries after the death of William Shakespeare, he is present and accounted for in our midst, his monumental achievement continuing to inspire, challenge and enlighten us. And as long as we bring our imagination and intelligence to our encounters with him, on page or stage, he will continue to flourish.